Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"The Wire" (2002 - 2008)

Much to my embarassment, I only got around to watching HBO's acclaimed series The Wire recently. And by "recently," I mean this morning. I don't usually write about TV aside from a post or two about the Emmys, but seeing as David Simon's series struck a chord with me, I felt that writing this came rather naturally. So, here it is. One thing that no one is really asking for: a review of a five-season show that ended in 2008.
 I’m going to try and keep this short(ish), because I usually find writing about TV weird. Why? No idea. Anyway, I’d heard great things about HBO’s drama The Wire for quite some time. Somewhere during my senior year of high school, I decided to finally start renting the series. I made it through four episodes, and I was just starting to really adjust to the show’s style and pacing, when, for some reason, I kept putting off with the show. Flash forward roughly four years and, thanks to the magic of HBOGo (you’re welcome), I picked up right where I left off. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to get back into David Simon’s world.
What’s most immediately impressive to me after finishing the series finale (literally only hours ago) is the above-mentioned world. TV has the benefit of being able to explore both characters and setting at a more gradual pace than film, and no show has made the most of that the way The Wire has. By the time the series segues into its final minutes, you come to realize how much the city of Baltimore is as big a character as McNulty, Kima, or Stringer Bell. 
Even more striking, in retrospect, is how the show covers different facets of the city without feeling forced. The jumps from the streets, to the ports, through the legal system, and finally to the media are structured by season, but it never becomes overly conceptual. The progression, especially from seasons three through five, is executed so seamlessly that I’m tempted to label the show one of the most consistent dramas I’ve ever seen. Episode to episode and season to season, The Wire is that rare show that gives off the feeling that the entire thing was intricately, immaculately planned out before the first episode aired.

The only rough patch among the bunch, if any, is perhaps the transition between the first and second seasons. Characters and arcs reappear across multiple seasons in The Wire, but the way certain aspects come in and out of focus in season two feels a little extreme. After getting adjusted to the show and becoming involved with the plot and characters of the first season, seeing said plot and characters pushed to the background to make way for the port stories caused the pacing to drag. Obviously McNulty, Lester, Kima, Bunk, and their co-workers remained prominent, but the other side (Stringer, Avon, etc…) seemed to pop up all too infrequently. On its own merits, season two probably succeeds much more, but coming after the set-up of season one, the port-related plots sometimes drag.
Yet once season three starts and we jump back to the streets, everything comes together with stunning execution for the rest of the ride. By the end of season one, I was aware that I was invested in the characters. Yet Simon grounds their personalities so deeply in their work that you often don’t realize how much you care until some little moment comes along and makes you smile, or laugh, or get a lump in your throat. That the series does this without resorting to melodrama is even more of an accomplishment.

The performances, all around, are wonderful. The chemistry between and among the ensemble is what really sells it all, and allows various characters’ rises and falls register with sincerity. With an ensemble this wonderful, I hate to pick favorite, but let’s just say I was always paying attention the most whenever Lester, Kima, or Carcetti were on screen. That said, my favorite individual moment of the entire show has to come in season four, when Bunk notes that Beadie trusts McNulty, and McNulty smiles back and his friend and confirms the statement. Of course, there’s always Clay Davis’ pronunciation of the word “shit,” if only for the laugh factor. Yet the show still deserves credit for the portrayal of its characters placed firmly outside of the law, as it never resorts to making them into over the top villains. Like the police and government officials, they remain people first. It’s a vision of both sides of anti-drug enforcement that is rarely achieved on the big or small screen.
The show also knew how to incorporate violence, and never rushed through scenes in order for a gun to go off. Quite the opposite. This is a layered, steadily paced character-drama to the bone. HBO sometimes ventures into self-parody with the levels of sex and violence it shows, which only makes The Wire’s execution stand out more. When violence hits, it’s never overblown. Like the rest of the show, shootings and beatings feel completely natural, and they pack an appropriately grim mix of intensity and shock.
And, from a strictly storytelling perspective, I adore how Simon and his collaborators executed such a dense narrative without ever really holding the audience’s hand. This is a show where every scene really mattered, because some name or piece of information that popped up in episode two could wind up being part of a major development five episodes later. Even the gradually divergent subplot of Bubbles (Andre Royo) felt necessary, and its arc is among the series’ most satisfying.

Ultimately, this is a rare breed of TV show. It treats its audiences like adults, refrains from melodrama or sensationalizing, and yet still boasts memorable characters (I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention OMAR), and stirring drama. Simon’s show simply puts itself within the broader canvas of its setting. The developments for the characters and the story are important, and we understand how they are important to the people on screen. But, at the end of the day, The Wire has enough intelligence to give its subject matter a conclusion that befits its consistent treatment across five seasons and 60 episodes. In a simple montage that all-but concludes the series finale, we see how so much has changed, and yet so much still remains the same. I didn’t really follow through on my promise to keep this short, but at this point I don’t care. Masterworks like this deserve more than a few sentences.
Season One: B+/A-
Season Two: B+
Season Three: A
Season Four: A+
Season Five: A
Series Grade: A

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